Noria Jablonski Interview

WG:Human Oddities is such an unusual collection of stories that it almost defies classification. How would you describe the book?

NJ: Human Oddities is a book of stories about the body. I'm not sure how I'd classify it--comic, tragic, absurd, shocking? It doesn't seem absurd or shocking to me, because the stories represent a fictionalized version of my own experiences. In many cases, these are people I've met and places I've been, but exaggerated in the funhouse mirror of fiction. I tend to write what I know.

WG:Can you give an example of how you've taken characters from real life and used them in your stories? Let's take "Pam Calls Her Mother on Five-Cent Sundays". Obviously, Fern and Rose Hyatt are stand-ins for real-life conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, but what about the other characters?

NJ: A couple examples:

The story "Solo in the Spotlight" was inspired by the obituary of Celestine Tate Harrington, a quadriplegic woman who was a street musician on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Also, when the courts tried to take custody of her daughter, she won the right to care for her by demonstrating how she could change a diaper with her teeth. I wrote the story, a brief imagined glimpse of her childhood, as an exercise in a workshop I took with Elizabeth McCracken, whose books The Giant's House and Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry deal with the body and the experience of physical difference.

The formerly conjoined twins in "One of Us" were based on two brothers who were profiled in a program on the Discovery Channel. But what happens to them in the story--one brother's personality changes drastically after he suffers a concussion in a car accident--was rooted in an event from my own life; this happened to my brother.

WG: What kind of influence did Elizabeth McCracken have on you? Where you writing stories that centered on the body before working with her?

NJ: I discovered Elizabeth McCracken's writing shortly after I realized that I wanted (or perhaps needed) to write about the body. I'd been writing for several years at that point, but my work lacked a sense of urgency. Becoming aware of how deeply my identity was rooted in my body gave my writing that oomph it had been missing. Another writer whose work I discovered around this time was Barbara Gowdy, who wrote We So Seldom Look on Love and Mr. Sandman. I recognized that both of these writers were doing something similar to what I was doing--exploring the landscape of the body and making oddness familiar. When I found out that Elizabeth McCracken was teaching a summer workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I drove across the country to take her class.

WG:What was it that interested you in "exploring the landscape of the body in your writing"? What is it that you do in your stories to try to make the seemingly odd familiar.

NJ: It began with "Succor," a story about a woman's plastic surgery gone awry. Writers don't necessarily realize what they're doing until they've done it, and with that story I realized that the body was a theme I wanted to explore more fully. I also felt that there was a dearth of literature that was concerned with the body and the range of corporeal experience--physical difference, illness and disability, gender identity, and body image. Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay "On Being Ill" that "literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind" and of the "daily drama of the body there is no record." But literature is also chock full of monsters, who are, for the most part, bad guys. Stigma is a convenient metaphor for evil or otherness, but it flattens out the very real experience of physical difference, reducing it to the object of horror, humor, or pity.

Furthermore, I had been reading a great deal about the history of side shows and dime museums, and I was interested in the stories of people who had been exhibited; the "true life" pamphlets that purported to tell their stories were, of course, sensational fabrications, and it seemed to me that I could get at a deeper, more complex truth by using fiction to describe characters whose lives were shaped in some fundamental way by their bodies.

As for familiarizing the seemingly odd, I hope I accomplish that by giving my characters depth, by not flattening them out and objectifying them, and by showing that they are driven by the same anxieties and desires as anyone else. They're human; they all want connection.

WG: In the last half decade there have been almost a landslide of disability autobiographies and yet very little fiction has appeared by writers with disabilities. You have commented else where that you see autobiography as a way of testifying. Will you elaborate on what you mean by that I why you prefer fiction as a medium?

NJ: I imagine the abundance of disability memoirs has something to do with the current market for non-fiction. Memoirs sell, fiction does not (especially not short fiction). That said, I do see autobiography as a form of testimony; it calls upon others to bear witness to one's experience, which is especially significant with regards to disability and the ways that people with disabilities have been marginalized.

I read more fiction than non-fiction, so I suppose I write what I'd like to read. But fiction also frees me from the constraints of fact. With fiction, I can stretch and rearrange the facts and portray a wider range of experience than just my own.

WG: I really want to thank you for doing the interview. Human Oddities really is a remarkable book and one that I hope our readers will become better acquainted with, but in closing out this interview I would like to give you a chance to talk about any other work or projects that you have coming up? What are you working on now?

NJ: I'm working on a novel about Fern and Rose Hyatt, the conjoined twins from "Pam Calls Her Mother on Five-Cent Sundays," who--as you said--were inspired by Daisy and Violet Hilton. I've also finished a few new stories, one of which will be appearing in an anthology about superheroes called Who Can Save Us Now?

Thank you for letting me talk a little about what I do and why, and thank you for your thoughtful questions.